Chapter One – Instruction

“A shrewd enemy does not attack in the midst of battle. He waits until bloody swords are sheathed and fallen bodies start to rot. Until the victors return home, tired and complacent. Then, with strength born from vengeful wrath, he strikes.”

Cerbriones, ‘Alalagmoe’


It was a blisteringly hot summer’s day, and the merciless sun beat down on the two figures sparring across the hard earth of the enclosed courtyard, the harsh cracks of their wooden practice swords resonating off the marble columns.

Dexios grunted as he parried a flurry of cuts aimed at his left flank, each blow sending a throb rippling from wrist to shoulder.

“Pause,” he barked, stepping back and lowering his weapon. His chiton was soaked with sweat, the moist linen sticking uncomfortably to his back and thighs. Dust from the courtyard covered his leather sandals, and tiny grains of dirt had found their way between his toes, making them itch. Dexios transferred his weapon to his free hand, stretching his fingers to loosen the cramped tendons. The rough hilt of the practice sword had rubbed against his palm, and he could see the tell-tale oval shape of a forming. He shook his head ruefully.

“Blisters from a training sword. I must be growing old. Or soft.”

The distant screech of a hawk made him look up, idly scratching his grey beard as he scanned the cloudless sky. A dark smudge circled high overhead, buffeted by the thermals, waiting for the perfect moment to swoop down on its prey.

Dexios tried to imagine what his manor house must look like from such a height, its limewashed walls a splash of white among the neat green rows of vines and the darker clumps of oak woodlands. The grapes were ripening nicely, slowly swelling and changing colour as they soaked up the sun’s rays. If the good weather continued, the harvest this year would be exceptional. And, for once, he would be here to see it.

“Father!” his opponent called irritably.

The hawk dived suddenly, flashing across the sun and down behind the walls of the courtyard, out of sight. Dexios lowered his gaze.

“Ready.” The word had barely left his lips when his son lunged at him, sword arm extended in a forward thrust. Dexios dodged easily, stepping to the side and tapping his son lightly on the shoulder with the flat of his blade as he stumbled past.

“You are too hasty, Keres,” he said with a tut of disapproval. “A duel is not a race, nor is it won on strength alone. You must use your wits as well as your sword. Your kosmetes has been lacking in his instruction. I will have words with him before the ceremony of the spear and shield.”

Dexios’s son glared back at him, breathing hard, the dark, crescent-shaped locks of his hair plastered to his forehead. His grip tightened almost imperceptibly around the haft of his weapon. There was an anger there, simmering just below the surface, drawn forth by the relentless heat and his father’s admonishment.

“It is not Galleas’s fault,” Keres replied, each word spoken slowly and with effort. “Ephebes like myself are no longer drilled in the art of single combat, as you would know if you had bothered to visit the garrison at least once during my term there.”

Dexios sighed. A part of him wanted to tell his son why he had not been able to bring himself to return to the place that had trained him in the art of war. That simply standing before the great double gates would trigger a hundred painful memories.

But Keres wouldn’t understand. The ceremony of the spear and shield was a celebration of his passage into manhood. The culmination of all he had strived for. On that day, he would stand proudly beside his friends. His comrades. His brothers in arms. He would stand beside them and listen to the crowd chant their names. He would think himself invincible.

Dexios remembered the day of his own ceremony well. It had been the last time he had seen all his ephebic companions alive. For Charon, ever impatient, had soon come for them, one by one. Some had died in the very first year, pierced by an arrow or javelin, crushed by the unyielding shield wall of an enemy phalanx, or drowned in the icy waters of the Sea of Scales. Others were taken by injury, sickness, or disease. For every season that passed, another brother was lost. Their decline was as inevitable as the grapevine losing its leaves in winter. Slow yet inescapable.

Of the score of eager young boys who had earned their spear and shield that day, only a handful remained, haunted by the shades of those who had fallen before.

Loss was a terrible ordeal to endure. After rising to the rank of strategos, Dexios had begun leading the funeral rites himself, placing Charon’s toll in the mouths of the dead before ordering their burial or cremation. It was he who had taken upon himself the burden of returning the shields of the deceased to their next of kin, watching as their children sobbed inconsolably, and their women tore at their hair in grief.

No, his son wouldn’t understand. Not yet. Maybe, in a couple of years, when he had faced more than bales of hay and wild animals. When he had stood in the sweat and blood and piss of a shield wall and held his own against a real enemy. When he had killed for the first time.

But not now. Dexios couldn’t tell him now.

“Kosmetes Galleas is wrong to abandon the pyrrhic dance,” he said instead. “The spear is a powerful weapon, but what if the phalanx collapses, or the enemy breaks through the front ranks? If you are ambushed whilst out of formation? If your spear is shattered on your opponent’s shield? Knowing how to wield a xiphos has saved my life more than once, boy, and if your teachers will not educate you in its proper use, then, by Hera, I will do so myself!”

Keres dabbed at his face with his chiton. “It’s not fair,” he began. “Tychos has been—”

“Tychos is the son of a stonemason,” Dexios interrupted sharply. “You are the son of a strategos. People will expect more from you as a result. As will I. Now, prepare yourself.”

Keres opened his mouth to reply, then closed it again when he saw the storm clouds swirling in his father’s eyes. Biting his lower lip, he settled into an offensive stance, his right leg anchored behind him, his practice sword held perpendicular to his body, ready for an underhand thrust.

Dexios came at him in a cloud of dust, batting his son’s blade aside and delivering two swift jabs to the ribs.

“You’re dead,” he growled. “Stop using your sword like a spear. That will work in the shield wall, but not in the chaotic melee that happens afterwards. Remember what I told you. The xiphos is versatile; it can stab, it can slash, it can cut. By combining these styles, you can catch your enemy off guard. Once more, then we break for water.”

They traded blows, moving back and forth across the courtyard, their wooden blades enabling a speed and fluidity not possible with their iron counterparts. Dexios found himself caught up in the rhythm of thrust and counter-thrust, parry and riposte; the ebb and flow of the dance of war. Keres was finally learning to vary his attacks, forcing Dexios to give his son his full attention.

He not only absorbs knowledge like a sponge, Dexios thought, dodging a cut to the face. He has the skill to apply what he has learnt almost immediately. He is worthy of receiving the spear and shield. Although still in need, perhaps, of one final lesson.

He parried an overhead swing with a crack of wood and punched Keres hard in the stomach. His son gave a surprised oomph as the air left his body, dropping his practice sword and bending over double.

“Your second year of ephebic training will be harder than the first,” Dexios said, watching his son cough and splutter. “You will leave the comforting haven of the garrison to patrol our borders. The basileus will have the right to call upon you in times of war or civil unrest. The spear and shield you are so eager to receive will be used to kill other men.”

Keres knelt to retrieve his fallen weapon. “My kosmetes has prepared me, Father. I am ready.”

“You cannot know that. I too thought myself ready. But the field of battle is not the training ground, Son. Your opponent will not wait for you to adjust formation. He will not allow you to regroup or retreat. He will try to end your life by any means necessary. If he cannot best you with his spear, he will use his fists, his elbows, his feet. He will knock you down and gouge out your eyes with his nails. And if you turn your back on him, he will not hesitate to cut you apart as you flee. Do you understand?”

Keres was silent. His parched tongue darted over chafed lips. He nodded.

“Very well.” Dexios raised his hand over his eyes to protect them from the glare of the sun and squinted towards the corner of the courtyard where Nambe, his oldest and most trusted slave, waited patiently. The big man was leaning against one of the marble columns, his dusky skin making him one with the shadows.

“Water!” Dexios called. “And strigils before we bathe!”

Nambe disappeared into the cool interior of the manor, seemingly untroubled by the heat. Dexios had bought the slave during his first military campaign as strategos: a hard-fought series of skirmishes against the men of the south, culminating in a great victory for the Thenean phalanx on the sun-scorched drylands bordering the desert.

That was close to eighteen years ago, and since then Nambe had followed his master across the battlefields of Tyrris, maintaining Dexios’s armour and weapons, pitching his tent, and washing his clothes. In time, his role had evolved from that of a simple servant to a full-time camp administrator, assisting Dexios in deciphering the never-ending stream of reports, letters, and receipts that were an inescapable part of his duties.

At the end of each campaign season, Dexios returned to his vineyards, and Nambe faithfully accompanied him, transitioning smoothly from running a war camp to managing the day-to-day business operations of a thriving winery. It was Nambe who supervised the harvesting, crushing, and fermentation of the grapes, marshalling the household slaves as easily as he did the soldiers under Dexios’s command. An ephemeral respite from the atrocities of war … lasting only until the basileus called them away once more.

And so, it had always been, year after year after year. But this time it would be different. The basileus had finally bled Dexios dry. He could no longer find the will to return. Could no longer stomach any more death. For the first time since receiving his spear and shield, Dexios would refuse the summons and relinquish his officer’s plume. He had already warned Letho that next season Thena would need a new strategos.

And Nambe? Dexios knew that the man had saved almost enough drachmae to purchase his freedom, along with that of his wife and daughter. If the weather held, and the harvest was as bountiful as Dexios hoped, Nambe would be a slave no longer, at liberty to go wherever he pleased. With a bit of luck, he would choose to carry on managing the estate, tempted by the added incentive of being able to own a stake in the business.

The big southerner reappeared with a set of strigils and two pewter cups filled with water. Dexios accepted one gratefully and took a welcome sip, relishing the sensation of the cool liquid in his mouth.

“My thanks.”

“Fresh from the northern spring, Master. The heat has reduced the stream to a trickle but it is sufficient for our meagre needs. I have sent Lyne back there to fill a couple of amphorae so that you may bathe. Would you like me to apply the strigil while we wait?”

Dexios shot him a look. “I’m quite capable of doing that myself, as you well know. Why don’t you go and help Lyne instead? Those amphorae will be heavy when filled with water.”

“Yes, Master,” Nambe replied with a bow of his shaved head.

“Still trying to pamper me after nigh on twenty years,” grumbled Dexios, throwing one of the bronze strigils underarm to Keres who caught it deftly. “Right. Let’s get out of this Gods-forsaken sun.”

The two men escaped the oppressive heat of the courtyard, entering the cool respite of the andron. Keres collapsed onto one of the couches lining the walls with a contented sigh. Dexios sat down next to him and began drawing the strigil across his lightly-tanned skin, scraping off the dirt and perspiration.

“So …” Keres began carefully. “About the ceremony …”


“The kosmetes is looking for veterans to speak to the ephebes. To advise them, I think, on how best to prepare for the second year. I was wondering if maybe you would consider …”

Dexios frowned. Lifting his right leg, he ran the strigil along his thigh. “And what makes you think they’ll listen to me?”

“Really? Are you so self-absorbed that you are not aware of the weight your name carries? Many believe you to be one of the greatest military leaders Tyrris has ever known, Father! Perhaps even greater than Cerbriones! Your … your offensive strategies are used by our trainers to illustrate just how effective a phalanx can be in the right hands.”

“We have already discussed this, Keres. It is … difficult for me to talk about what happened on those distant battlefields. I would rather keep such memories hidden deep, far from the light.”

“Yes, yes, I know … but there must be so many inspiring stories you could tell! Tales of glory and triumph!”

Keres was sitting up straight, his eyes wide and yearning. Dexios turned to him, and for a moment his son’s face was replaced by another, pale and lifeless, one cheek torn open by the spiked barbs of an enemy arrow, blood and saliva dribbling from the ragged hole.

“I have nothing to say,” he said softly. “Nothing any of you would want to hear.”

“But, Father—”

“Master!” Nambe’s deep voice carried a tone of urgency.

Dexios dropped his strigil and ran to the vestibule. Lyne lay propped against the altar of Hera Herkeios, his face and arms covered in ugly scratches. The young house slave had a deep gash in his midriff, and blood was seeping from the wound, turning the marble altar red. His eyes were rolled so far into the back of their sockets that only the white sclerae were visible. Nambe hovered over him, his chiton spattered with crimson droplets.

“Nambe, are you hurt?”

“Hmm?” The slave seemed to notice the stains on his tunic for the first time. “No, Master. That’s not mine. I found Lyne not far from the stream and carried him here. Something attacked him. Something big. There were marks in the mud around his body.” He paused. “I … have seen those types of tracks before. Although never this far south. Hoofprints.”

Dexios squatted down next to the injured house slave and gently lifted the torn chiton with the tips of his fingers. The jagged wound underneath was two inches wide and shaped like a comma with a deep, circular indentation over the belly that arced upwards as far as the thorax. Dexios let out a tired breath. There was no mistaking the creature responsible for such a gruesome injury.

“Nambe,” he said, feeling the joints in his knees crack as he stood. “Carry Lyne to the andron and fetch some wine to clean the wound, then round up a half-dozen slaves and meet me in the courtyard. Keres? Please ask your mother to join us. We will have need of her sewing skills. Oh, and send someone on a fast horse to Thena. The physician there will know what to do.”

Keres hesitated. “Forgive me, Father, but I don’t understand. What sort of beast would do this?”

“Horns and hooves, Son. That can only mean one thing. Tauros.